North Korean ship symbolizes hopes for Japan ties

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 2, 2014 at 11:44 pm •  Published: July 2, 2014

WONSAN, North Korea (AP) — The barbecues are all fired up along the jetty and the beach is dotted with sunbathers. Divers plunge into the water in search of clams, which are dipped in hot sauce and eaten raw right there on the spot. Wonsan, a sleepy port on North Korea's east coast, is gearing up for a busy summer and, if talks with Japan go as North Korea hopes, maybe a return to livelier days.

Opening the door just a crack to better relations, Pyongyang has set up a committee to reinvestigate the fates of a dozen Japanese citizens who Tokyo suspects were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. In return, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday that Japan will ease array of unilateral sanctions that have shut down virtually all trade and most contact between the countries.

It's unclear how far North Korea is willing to go to satisfy Japan's demands to resolve the abductions issue, which even more than the North's nuclear program has galvanized Japanese public opinion against Pyongyang. Popular sentiment in North Korea against Japan — its former colonial ruler — is even more negative.

Envoys for the two sides met Tuesday in Beijing to discuss the new committee. Abe's decision was to be formally approved by his Cabinet on Friday, after the new committee holds its first meeting. Japan will ease travel restrictions, allow port calls for humanitarian purposes and loosen requirements on reporting money transfers to the North.

In Wonsan, a giant ferry that was once an important link between the countries mysteriously reappeared, dominating the view of the harbor, before talks began.

The Mangyongbong-92, a sleek white ship longer than a football field, was long the symbol of a once-massive flow of goods, people and cash between the countries. Its recent return suggests that Pyongyang wants to resume port calls, and start pulling in Japanese cash, as soon as possible, but there has been no official explanation. Like the proverbial 500-pound gorilla in the room, Wonsan residents are reluctant to even mention it.

Until the Mangyongbong-92 was banned in 2006, Wonsan was a bustling port of entry for Japanese capital.

The ferry was a crucial means for the ethnic Koreans in Japan to visit the North, often laden with gifts, supplies and cash for their relatives or friends, bringing a wide variety of products not normally available in the socialist state. In its peak years, the Mangyongbong-92 was believed to have transported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods and cash to the North.

Tokyo says it is willing to reward Pyongyang if it comes clean on the abductions issue — including allowing North Korean ships to make port calls in some cases. But, fearing they will be criticized for breaking ranks with allies in Washington and Seoul, officials stress they will still abide by U.N.-backed sanctions on the North's long-range missile and nuclear weapons tests. Pyongyang says it has no intention of giving up its nuclear program.